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Brewing a better coffee cup online

Starbucks has thrown its weight--and $20,000 in prize money--behind a competition to design a legitimate alternative to the disposable coffee cup.

Promotional materials for the Betacup Challenge, a contest to design a more sustainable alternative to paper coffee cups.

It started with a guilt trip.

As is the custom these days, when digital-media strategist Toby Daniels sets up meetings, he goes out for coffee. When he would meet with Graham Hill, the founder of TreeHugger.com, Hill would bring along one of his side projects--a ceramic coffee cup in the manner of an old, diner-style paper cup, which he sells at WeAreHappyToServeYou.com.

"Every time I used to meet Graham, he used to bring me one of these ceramic coffee cups sort of as a way to suggest I shouldn't be drinking my coffee out of a paper cup," said Daniels, who moved to New York from his native United Kingdom a few years ago. "I'm still struggling to switch. I have five reusable cups at home and I never bring them with me when I get coffee on the go."

Finally, Hill's passive-aggressive statement of sustainability turned into an idea. While attending an April 2009 conference hosted by edgy consulting firm PSFK, the two came to the conclusion that maybe there was a real problem if a seemingly forward-thinking city dweller like Daniels couldn't seem to curb his addiction to disposable coffee cups. And thus, the Betacup Challenge was born: $20,000 of prize money at stake in a contest of designers, builders, and thinkers striving to create a legitimate alternative to the 58 billion disposable coffee cups that are thrown away, unrecycled, around the world each year.

And this summer, after one false start nearly derailed the competition earlier this year, there will be a champion: Entries will close June 1, commentary and rating end June 15, and after that, judges select a winning design that will be awarded $10,000. The remaining $10,000 will be distributed among five community favorites. They'll all be honored in an awards ceremony of sorts.

The Betacup Challenge is purposely open-ended: design a coffee cup that addresses the problem of disposable coffee cups, and upload the concept to the Web. As a result, some of the 200-plus submissions are disposable cups that use alternative materials, some are reusable cups with a built-in incentive for actually bringing them back day after day, and some are entire infrastructures of cups and specialized recycling systems. Take, for example, the inflatable plastic "air cup" that claims to use less than half the material that a traditional coffee cup does, is already insulated to eliminate the need for cardboard sleeves, and which could be disposed at "cause recycling" locations that would funnel their reconstruction into materials for humanitarian projects, like water jugs and plastic lumber.

A handful of entries weave Starbucks loyalty programs into the design of the cup. One of the top-rated Betacup Challenge submissions is the "Mille Mug," a collapsible cup that an MIT designer has already physically built, and suggests that it could be accompanied with a loyalty program that registers how many times the cup has been reused--which, in turn, ties into how many cups have been saved.

Still other designs promote wacky ingredients: A Berlin-based designer suggested rice husk as the base material for a cup that would be both reusable and biodegradable; another designer decided that shredded bamboo could do the job. Multiple entries, meanwhile, were inspired by one of the natural world's own drinking vessels--coconuts. There's the "Cococup," which suggests coconut hull as a biodegradable, sustainable alternative to paper. In the spirit of collaborative design, someone else took that idea in a different direction with the "Grown Cococup."

"The idea is simple to cultivate a novel coconut breed with less flesh, and let the fruits grow in pre-cup-forms, like bulbs in bottles," the designer of the Grown Cococup explained in his product description. "Such novel coconut plantations can replace monocultures in the third world, maybe also beside established coffee plantations."

Maybe it's not the most practical idea. But it's inventive for sure.

What do the experts like? Graham Hill, an adviser to the Betacup Challenge, could not comment much. Reached via e-mail, he was somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, one of the crew members on board the Plastiki--a boat made of 12,000 plastic bottles, captained by British adventurer David de Rothschild to raise awareness of the impact of disposable plastics on the environment. The inquiry to Hill's e-mail address was met with an auto-response of "SERIOUSLY OUT OF OFFICE."

Right now, the array of Betacup submissions have amassed hundreds of comments and suggested improvements from around the world. But things weren't always this prolific for the Betacup Challenge, which took months to get off the ground and was nearly derailed when the $20,000 in prize money proved harder to secure than its collaborators had initially thought.

Early interest had been positive. As the summer of 2009 kicked off, Daniels teamed up with Jovoto, an online community for "crowdsourced" projects, and set up shop in the New York offices of Colaboratorie Mutopo, a firm that focuses on projects of "mass collaboration." A few Betacup representatives traveled to Monterey, Calif., that July for a design conference called Overlap, where a blogger in attendance wrote about their project--and the link made its way to Jim Hanna, director of environmental affairs at Starbucks.

It was clear early on that Starbucks, a company attempting to keep a delicate balance between corporate ubiquity and a socially conscious, innovation-savvy image, was interested in putting its name on something like the Betacup Challenge. Exactly how it would be involved was less clear.

"It was clear from the first conversation with them that Jim was less interested in cups per se," said Shaun Abrahamson of Colaboratorie Mutopo, another core member of the Betacup organizing team. He's out there trying to lobby to get a city like New York to improve its infrastructure for recycling. But from Starbucks' perspective, (the Betacup) is a way to say, 'Look, this is why it's hard.'"

Daniels and his collaborators e-mailed with Hanna at Starbucks about working together, but Daniels said the talks didn't progress very far at first since they weren't quite sure how a partnership would fall into place. A few months went by, and in November the Betacup team decided to raise the prize money--$20,000, with $10,000 for the winner and the rest to be divided among runners-up--by establishing a fund on microfinancing site Kickstarter, which more recently has been pulling in plenty of press as the platform for the funding of conceptual Facebook alternative Diaspora.

"We love Kickstarter. We thought it was phenomenal," Daniels told CNET. "We thought it was an obvious way of raising the $20,000 in the absence of not having any other way to raise the $20,000."

Unfortunately, it didn't work. The Betacup Challenge on Kickstarter failed to reach its fundraising goal by the January 1 deadline that Daniels and his team had imposed, and so no money was raised.

"We had some initial early success, and we got to three or four grand in a relatively short amount of time," Daniels said, "but we definitely saw the fundraising aspect of things plateau, and we didn't have the resources to keep up the momentum."

The Betacup was in hot water: When the development of a project is chronicled in public from its earliest days, its failures as well as successes will be broadcast for all to see. Daniels and the rest of his team weren't willing to give up, but with the Kickstarter fundraising a bust, the whole project was at risk of being seen as an early failure. Thankfully, there was still an open door at Starbucks, and now there was a concrete way they could help out--by fronting $20,000. On March 15, all of the would-be Kickstarter donors received an e-mail informing them that Starbucks would be sponsoring the Betacup Challenge. Things were back in motion.

More sponsors and partner companies have jumped on board, too: T-shirt company Threadless has launched a Betacup tie-in contest for the design of "an amazing tee inspired by coffee," and do-it-yourself geek community Instructables has put up a promotion dedicated to alternative uses for paper coffee cups. As for the Betacup Challenge itself, the submission deadline is June 1. The panel of experts to choose the eventual winner is an impressive one, too--Threadless CEO Jake Nickell, Starbucks' Hanna, and the currently seafaring Hill, among others.

Yet despite star power, the fate of the Betacup Challenge is unclear. Starbucks is not obliged to purchase the winner's design or to make any in-store changes as a result; under Jovato's regulations, the person who comes up with the winning idea still retains ownership rights to it. Starbucks' connection to the Betacup Challenge is not as close as, say, Netflix's was to its Netflix Prize competition to build a more accurate recommendation system.

"What took the longest with Starbucks was a legal discussion," Shaun Abrahamson said. "Within the community the clients are basically paying to be part of the conversation. What they aren't paying for is ownership of the idea or the rights to the idea."

With no guarantee to implement the winning design, it may still be awhile before Starbucks or any other major coffee chain starts stocking cups with built-in barcodes or constructed from coconuts, if they ever do at all. Like concept cars at a high-end auto show, they make for sexy prototypes but still are difficult to imagine operating in the real world. The team behind the Betacup Challenge says that it will have been a success if it catalyzes conversation about bringing sustainable practices to the morning latte ritual.

"With the conversations we're starting to have, I think what can we pilot is whether there is anything we can take away from this, and I think that's more of a Starbucks question," Abrahamson said. "Maybe a material science cup problem is a longer, harder thing."

Still, stranger things have come to fruition, like a boat made of plastic bottles.